Unless purposely ignoring pop culture most people know in The Streaming Age not every major film event will be found in the summer blockbuster. In the first weekend after unofficial summer opener MDW, big franchise names like Aladdin and Godzilla: King of the Monsters were a guarantee to dominate the box office. While media and pop culture continue to exhibit ageism and the constant need for new short-lived celebrities from rappers to viral sensations at such a normalized level, successful franchises of yesteryear continue to convince people to come out and spend money to see the same story repackaged, re-done, and (hopefully) improved.
Nostalgia is indeed ultra and the stories that entertained us as children should be passed down from generation to generation and shared with our younger siblings, cousins, neighbors, and colleagues. After all, pop culture was meant to be enjoyed, but also meant to critique the very best and worst of society at large. And where the summer blockbuster has lately failed to push us outside our comfort zone, streaming giants like Netflix or Hulu offer a valuable alternatives — “smaller” stories that ask bigger questions in minute ways. While most Hollywood would paint these stories as “risks,” the average American seems to be waking up to the idea that there are worthy stories to tell by taking “normal” and making it extraordinary. This is fully on display in the new Netflix romantic-comedy You’ll Always Be My Maybe.
Watched as a double feature, Godzilla: King of the Monsters and You’ll Always Be My Maybe do a strong job of complementing each other by hitting many points on the emotional spectrum. Both contain drama, laughs, death, and social commentary to keep you invested, but it’s You’ll Always Be My Maybe that leaves you feeling more fulfilled when you get to the end and that’s not just because we already know a Godzilla vs. Kong sequel will arrive next summer 2020.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters asks its actors and audience to do a lot with a little. Any movie that openswith a quick news clip montage to get the viewers up to speed is already asking the audience to suspend their disbelief just a little more than a movie that does not. From there, viewers are expected to stay for the entirety of the ride and not ask too many questions. Unlike a more crafted cinematic universe such as Marvel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, much like the 2014 predecessor Godzilla, struggles to convince the audience to buy in.
Godzilla is a Japanese franchise. It was created as a post-traumatic social commentary on the destruction caused by the United States of America after dropping the atom bomb twice in World War II. Now, any true fan of the Godzilla movies who has seen a fair share of the franchise can admit that the Asian productions are far superior to the Hollywood films. While 1998’s Matthew Broderick leading Godzilla was plenty memeable, required watching it is not. The same can be said of the new franchise headed by Legendary Pictures. Furthmore, the new Godzilla film franchise, part of a new Giant Monster Universe so far comprised of Godzilla and King Kong as the only two protagonists, makes Godzilla a more universal concept not wholly tied to Japan. It is here that the film suffers. From changing the name of the giant monsters to Titans instead of Kaiju (I am curious to know what they will be called in the Asian translations of these films) and making Godzilla some sort of ancient protector of the Earth naturally, Hollywood is changing the very canon and lore of what Godzilla means for the planet. Instead of being a byproduct of a deadly human weapon that returns the destruction 100x fold, he is now a timeless God.
Now this is not necessarily a bad thing and I applaud the creative team for attempting to cover the topic of climate change and environmentalism issues in a summer blockbuster, but the depth of the characters and matter of fact writing makes it very hard to have any sort of critical thought process about how society should deal with these issues. From the moment Vera Farmiga’s Dr. Emma Russell reveals herself as one of the eco-terrorists bent on bringing balance back to nature by allowing the Titans to run free and exterminate a large part of the overpopulating humans, her own daughter quickly turns on her revealing the plan as fully evil. There was no real nuance or leg to stand on with the idea that innocents (and marginalized ones at that) should be snuffed off the planet to make the world an equitable place, especially considering we know that like 71% of climate change is being caused by 100 large corporations.
Perhaps if Godzilla was a local union and grass-roots organizer (which is funny because the radiation Godzilla leaves behind causes an influx in growing forestry) the environmental idea would land a little more, but in a world of CGI and summer hits Hollywood needs more big show downs and less genuine answers to thoughtful questions. This is where the Hollywood films fail where often the Japanese productions such as 2016’s Shin Godzilla or Netflix’s animated Godzilla trilogy succeed. The giant monsters are never truly the centerpiece of Kaiju films, but rather how humanity created, responds, and moves on from the tragedies caused by Kaiju that are often a domino effect of human action.
Where Godzilla: King of the Monsters sets up large existential environmental questions about how we should face very real threats to our planet, You’ll Always Be My Maybe asks us to look at our smaller communities around us and ask what is worth saving and what is not. Celebrity chef Sasha Tran, played by Ali Wong, returns home to gentrifying San Francisco to be reunited with childhood friend and one time lover Marcus Kim, played by Randall Park. Sasha has blown up and made a ton of cash and fame from her passion for cooking, while Marcus is smoking weed in his father’s house and writing the best originally hilarious songs since Aldous Snow first hit the big screen over ten years ago in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
The couple is no match made in Heaven, despite an incredible chemistry. There fights and differences are real and relatable. Marcus wants to stay in his hometown of SF and fight off the hipster while keeping his 16 year old band stuck in the same small venue. Sasha is serving up small yet expensive dishes to rich white folk, much to the chagrin of the other. This is not the first time seeing a popular Asian-American couple in love on screen in this cinema magnitude and social conversation. Last year’s excellent Crazy Rich Asians was a global phenomena that showed Hollywood executives the world was ready for romantic-comedies from non-white actors. This newfound “trend” is welcome and You’ll Always Be My Maybe is another excellent example of how “normal” people and rich and/or famous people can co-exist across socio-economic lines. Indeed, the film does an excellent job of having Marcus and Sasha discuss and often argue about the meaning of authenticity and who San Francisco belongs to.
The film’s ending answers how newfound elites and those of privilege can positively contribute to their to their community while also inspiring their marginalized peers to dare to dream. The idea of selling out will always be a touchy subject in socially disempowered groups, but the liberal, and to some hopeful, message of pushing the individual for their own benefit as well as the community’s is a feel-good ending that sits well with the viewer. This message is something society agrees upon in theory, but often does very little to give us examples of. While individuality is important and essential to a varied society, it is impossible to ignore how socio-economic factors of race, gender, class, and sexuality play a part in the everyday lives of people in certain demographics. While there is no singular story, data aka science and pop culture, often tell us where the overlap can be found.
While Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a beautiful spectacle, the idea of a small group of powerful scientists somehow convincing the world governments to trust them to stop a global disaster seems terribly cynical, or unbelievably optimistic, in a world that refuses to take even the smallest of necessary steps to combat very real climate change and environmental issues that are compounding by the day. While You’ll Always Be My Maybe ends with Sasha opening up an authentic and somewhat upscale Asian food restaurant that attempts to remove the 1% influence, the hipsters who are the privates of the gentrification army will eventually find this spot and ruin it. This isn’t necessarily bad as it reflects the reality of the world we are in, but it is an improvement on the outsider profiting entirely off a marginalized group of people. Neither movie is perfect, but both are enjoyable; however, one of them has a relatability that any fan of storytelling should check out.